By Anna Prince Redd
Synopsis: Janet, protectingly reared in Washington, D.C., lives in constant dread of the San Juan country of Utah where her husband, Paul Morgan, has an Indian trading post on the mesa. She plans on their moving to Washington before the birth of her baby, but does not disclose this intention to her husband. Upon returning home with Paul after a happy week spent on the mesa, they find that Janet’s sister, Rhae, and her husband, Warren Newsbaum, have arrived for a short visit with the announced intention of taking Janet back to Washington with them. The next morning Paul is hurt when he saves Warren from being dragged by a broncho. A few months later, while Paul, restored to health, is absent on a roundup, an Indian, Mike, threatens to kill Janet. She seeks refuge in the Devil’s Corridor where she becomes unconscious. During the long days that follow, Janet lies in an unconscious condition, and when her child is born it lives only a few hours. After its birth, however, she falls into a natural sleep.
Janet came into the store the back way, unobserved, just as Paul brushed a litter of papers aside and sank tiredly into his desk chair. It was the first time she had been to see him at his work since her illness months before. All day she had watched the Indians string in and out of the store, knowing that Paul would be worn from their bargaining, longing to go and help him as she had always done, but afraid to intrude on what seemed to be more and more his own domain. She had been encased in her own grief so long that it was hard to break free. She was shocked to realize how long it had been since she and Paul had felt the old, carefree companionship with each other. A year ago she would have been in the store with Paul, bargaining with the shrewdest of them. No Indian ever sold a blanket at the first figure set for it. Janet smiled in spite of herself. Many a time she’d driven a better bargain than Paul had succeeded in doing. It made her want to get in and swap bargains until Paul would catch her up in his big arms and say they’d made enough money for one day, it was time for “chow.”
But the day had worn wearily away and she had not gone near the store. “Paul should be coming in to dinner,” had been her last thought, and as he was making no effort to drive the loiterers out so he could lock up, she suddenly was on her way to see that he did. But her first sight of him, unconscious of her presence, made her feel shy and awkward.
As Paul sank into his chair, relaxing his long body, his face looked drawn and tired. Janet hesitated, standing out of sight behind a barrel of cured meats. The store had emptied itself of the last straggler and there seemed nothing for her to do, now that she was here. She turned to leave, and just then the front door opened, directly in line with her path of retreat.
Paul looked up without curiosity, for one more to come and go was all in a day to him. He showed no interest whatever, even when he saw that the man in the door was Doctor Potsworth.
The doctor came in. “How are you, Paul?” he asked gravely.
“Oh, fine,” Paul replied, but his voice belied his words. Janet was shocked by his lack of interest. His enthusiasm for everything in life had been one of his main attractions for her. She turned to slip quietly away, when Paul’s voice stopped her.
“Glad to see you, Doc,” Paul was saying. “Janet’s over at the house.”
Janet drew back guiltily.
“I didn’t come to see Janet,” Potsworth said bluntly. “I came to see you. I saw Janet yesterday – in town.”
Janet hung on Paul’s answer. She had gone to town without telling him that she was going, hardly knowing why, herself. Certainly she hadn’t intended buying that railroad ticket. It would be Doctor Potsworth who would come in and see her doing it. Of course she hadn’t explained. There wasn’t anything she could say about it. Now what would Paul say?
He said evenly, “Yes, I believe Janet was in town.”
Janet was disappointed without knowing why. She had vaguely hoped Paul would deny that she had been away without his knowledge. His next words shocked her almost into betraying her presence.
“Janet’s planning a vacation, Doc. A long vacation.” His voice was so controlled that it was emotionless. He almost recited the words.
“Feeling dull, eh?” Dr. Potsworth asked.
Paul leaped to his feet. “Can I help it if she’s sick of the place? I am, too! We’re as far from each other as El Toro is from civilization!”
Janet turned and ran out of the store, her heart hammering out his words. Paul was sick of El Toro! Now they would go away! At first that was her one clear thought. She went past a cowboy chopping wood in the shade of the red cliffs back of the house. Past Juanee making moccasins for her boys. Past old Taos’ kennel, where now an upstart collie yelped for attention. She spurned him with her foot. Old Taos was dead. El Toro was dead. Fear was dead!
Her heart sang with relief. Paul was sick of El Toro! Soon all this would be only a bitter memory. There’d be a new life, new friends and old ones. Her heels made ecstatic little sounds on the hollow stones of the patio. A new life! No Devil’s Corridor under her feet. No mummy case at her back. No Indians to stalk her dreams. No reproachful squaw to worry about. When she and Paul were gone, Indian Joe would come back to Juanee again and stop hunting foolish old Mike and his bad begay.
Juanee’s twin boys ran around the house chasing a phantom deer, bows taught, arrows aimed. Janet’s eyes followed them … No laughing-eyed boys to peer at her through the screen, waiting for cookies … eyes that reproached her when she did not smile. Eyes that looked at her curiously as they were doing now from behind the corner of the porch.
Janet gave each of the boys a handful of cakes, hardly conscious that her thought train had been broken. She’d send the boys presents. Strange things they had never seen. Things that would make their eyes pop out of their heads. Things that would hold their curiosity for days on end. (They were so much a part of her life that her new plans could not go on without them.)
Away ran the twins twanging their arrows, laughing back at Janet. Her thoughts went as swiftly on their own way. There’d be her father, fusty and dear in his museum; Rhae and Warren and all their friends. Her old home; all the dear familiar things she’d known and left. Paul would see. Their life would be so gay and beautiful he’d forget his enslavement here. Paul would forget to frown; his laugh would ring out at little things as it had when she first knew him. Paul would not have to be scolded by a fat old doctor who took upon himself the spiritual as well as the physical welfare of his patients. Paul would be a figure of respect in his new world. He’d be doing –
What would Paul be doing? Try as she would, she could not make Paul’s image come alive in any surroundings other than his own. Taken from El Toro – even in her thoughts – he became unreal and elusive. Janet shook her head as if to clear her mind of this unwelcome thought, and to restore the gay visions she had conjured up; but they refused to be conjured. Sitting straight in a chair by the door, she listened, as if she could still hear Paul and the doctor talking. Paul, idly sketching Indian heads on his desk pad, or jumping up angrily to deny the doctor’s words. Doc, scolding and nagging at him, reminding him of his duty to his wife.
Janet locked and unlocked her fingers. Why should she care what they were saying? What anyone said? She was free now. Free to leave El Toro!
But Paul’s words persisted in her ears … “We’re as far from each other as El Toro from civilization …” Paul’s eyes, sick with misery, still defied her to hurt him any more. Slowly realization came. Paul was not sick of El Toro. Paul loved his country and his home with all his heart. But he was unhappy. Hurt from loneliness and her withdrawal into her own grief. Unhappy because of the tiny grave up on the hill, just as she was. Unconsciously she had blamed Paul for that. And for many, many other things. though her grief had softened, her bitterness remained, including Paul, the good little doctor, El Toro, San Juan, and herself in its dregs. The dregs of selfish, unshared grief; pain that denied healing.
How could she have become so absorbed as not to have seen the pain in Paul’s eyes, in his voice? How far they were from the quiet happiness of their camp on Gray Mesa. From the fire-glow and the stars above Hotel Collins. And how many, many bitter times she had remembered.
“This week is something to remember, Janet,” Paul had said as they rode down from the mesa. “Something we may both wish for in the days to come.”
Paul’s voice then … Paul’s voice now … On the mesa, in the store, dull with misery. Janet sprang up, anger at Paul, at Dr. Potsworth, at herself, at the country, being broken to bits by the hammering of her heart. Suffocating with the force of it, she went out into the patio. The sun was setting on the little cemetery she had never seen. She knew only by Juanee’s sad gaze that her baby was there.
Janet smiled and climbed the hill. Realization had not come too late.
“Paul, won’t you take Dr. Potsworth’s advice and let what’s done be done? Leave Mike and his begay alone and let them come back?”
Janet and Paul were sitting together in the west patio. Night had fallen in quiet beauty. Heavy with perfume, the desert air clung about them. There wasn’t the least riffle of a breeze, no sound to break the stillness but their own intermittent voices.
“It’s been months, Paul,” Janet continued, “since Mike tore up the place. Yet you rail him ceaselessly. Juanee worries about Joe, lying in wait for Mike to slip back into the reservation. You both know the Utes will never let you take Mike without a fight. There’s been too much trouble in this country already, too much bloodshed. Give this fight up, Paul.”
Paul’s hand closed reassuringly over Janet’s. “Why didn’t you tell me you were afraid,” he said. “I’d have gone to the ends of the earth with you. It was left for Doc to set me straight. I blame myself for what happened to you. I’ll take you away, and come back here only to do the things I have to do.”
“Like hunting savages.”
“But, Janet, dear, acts like Mike’s can’t continue. The Indians think we’re afraid to fight. This time they’ll not get off!”
“Then you give me just one more thing to fear.”
“Let me take you away, Janet?”
“No, Paul. If you had hunted for a way to bind me to El Toro you could not have found a surer one.”
Paul noted with satisfaction that there was no bitterness in Janet’s voice. He even fancied it held a bit of relief. He lifted her hand and spread each of her tapered, beautiful fingers over one of his own, Measuring his thought to fit his words. “You – you mean – that fear for me overmasters your fear of the country?”
Janet nodded. “There can be no choice,” she said simply.
“Your happiness is all I want,” Paul said gratefully. “If it will help things for you, I’ll try to get Mike out of my system. Now that we’re together again nothing else matters.”
Janet laughed shakily. “You sound as if I’d been gone for years, Paul. Actually. not just into my moody self.”
“Ages,” Paul corrected. “Years couldn’t be that long. Don’t ever leave me alone again, Janet. We belong together. If not here, then – ”
“Here. Paul.” Janet said it determinedly.
“It’s good to see you smile again, Juanee.” Janet had turned from her baking to greet the young Indian woman as she came in at the back door, grinning broadly.
“Now that my Joe is back I sing all day,” Juanee told her. “And my mother, she is coming today … five months she has been gone.”
“Yes. Ever since the day Mike’s begay tricked you away from El Toro. Will your mother tell us what happened to her at her hogan? How the begay got her turquoise cross?”
“If my father is not angry, my mother will talk.” Juanee’s black eyes flashed angrily; her proud little shoulders came up in defiance.
“But your father brought Mike back to the reservation –”
“Tied to the tail of his horse!” Juanee interrupted. “His honor is restored.”
“Yes, Juanee. And Mike has promised to be a good Indian. Your father did well to let the sheriff take Mike to jail. That will help him to be a good Indian. Your father will not be angry now?”
“My father is just. He is a chief. He is proud.”
“Mike is a foolish old man. His boy is bad because he has a bad father. Mike promises that the boy shall live with his grandmother and go to school. His grandmother is a good woman. So now everything is settled, Juanee, and you are happy again.”
“You, too, Miss Janet? All the time you make me think of a velvet yucca, white and tall.”
“Why, Juanee, that was a lovely compliment.”
“But you should be pink – like the cactus blossom.”
“When I come back from Washington, D.C., you won’t know me, Juanee,” Janet announced unexpectedly.
“You are going away?” There was worry in Juanee’s eyes.
“Yes, Juanee.” Janet was surprised at the way she went on announcing a half-formed plan. She had said she would not leave El Toro, but knowing that Mike was safely lodged in jail had suddenly released her tension. She could go away now for a while and be happy.
“And Mister Paul?” Juanee asked, reproaching Janet with every inch of her slim, loyal little body.
“He is going to Washington, too. Not now, but very soon.”
Juanee’s satisfaction was complete. “That is good,” she said. “When you come to El Toro again there will be another papoose in my hogan.”
Janet cried: “Juanee! That’s wonderful!” But her heart contracted with envy.
“Do not be sad, Miss Janet,” Juanee was quick to catch the meaning of Janet’s eyes. “Every night I pray to the Father of my people. That is why I have another papoose. Now, when my boys are six years old.”
“And you think I should pray to the Father of my people?”
“If you want baby, yes.”
Janet’s eyes turned to the little grave upon the hill, framed within the big new window Paul had added to El Toro.
“I have prayed, Juanee. Very, very hard.”
“Then you get baby.” Juanee’s white teeth flashed through a broad smile. “I’ll go now and bake potatoes in the ashes.”
Whenever Juanee wanted to celebrate she baked potatoes in the ashes.
“That’s a very good custom,” Janet said, and Juanee went out.
“Dear God,” Janet prayed silently. “Let me want to bake potatoes in the ashes too!”